Each year, over 16,000 new cases of lupus occur throughout the United States, and at least 1.5 million people are living with the disease in the U.S., the Lupus Foundation of America estimates. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease where the body’s tissues and organs are under siege by its own immune system, creating chronic inflammation throughout.
As such, an immune system affected by lupus cannot differentiate between viruses and healthy tissues, and attempts to eliminate and destruct healthy tissue by forming autoantibodies.
Due to these autoantibodies, persons with lupus typically experience swelling in the skin, joints, kidneys, and blood cells, and sometimes in the brain, heart, and lungs. Naturally, the inflammation is painful and can impair certain systems permanently, as the autoantibodies are working diligently to rid the body of important components.
Those who have lupus go through a series of flares and remissions, as symptoms are aggravated and create sickness for a period of time, and other times, symptoms are not as apparent. Lupus occurs in varying degrees of severity, though it can be fatal if it goes untreated. Many individuals with lupus are able to carry on a regular life with ongoing medical treatment and proper care.
Lupus may have genetic causes, though the main trigger for the disease is environment. Ultraviolet rays, sulfa medications (which heighten sensitivity to the sun) like certain antibiotics and diuretics, bacterial or viral infections, injury, fatigue, emotional stress, and physical stress can all trigger the onset of lupus in someone who is predisposed. A few of the more common causes of lupus include taking a drug to treat an illness, pregnancy and delivery, infections, and sun exposure, according to researchers. Lupus is also linked to estrogen, as women with lupus usually experience flares in peak estrogen production times, notably, prior to menstruating and/or while pregnant. Estrogen does not cause lupus, but it seems to worsen the effects in women who have the disease.
The characteristic symptom of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and bridge of the nose, though this is not apparent in every case. Additional outward symptoms include lesions that occur or worsen after sun exposure, and Raynaud’s phenomenon, where the fingers and toes turn white or blue in cold temperatures or when experiencing stress. As the disease affects multiple body systems, a person with lupus may have any of the following:
- Joint and muscle pain and inflammation
- Inflammation (edema) in legs, feet, hands, and/or around the eyes
- Anemia (low red blood cell or hemoglobin count)
- Chest pain when deeply breathing (pleurisy)
- Photosensitivity (sensitive to sun or light)
- Fingers or toes turning white and/or blue when cold (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
- Hair loss
- Abnormal blood clotting
- Nose or mouth ulcers
Symptoms can often be misleading as many overlap with other illnesses, which can at times make it difficult to diagnose lupus. Lupus mimics the symptoms of blood disorders, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid problems, Lyme disease, along with various other diseases affecting the heart, lungs, bones, and muscles. Based on the severity of a person’s disease and which body systems are affected by lupus, different symptoms will occur.
Lupus can also affect mental health, causing anxiety, depression, and other disorders as a result of medications, the disease itself, or stress related to coping with a chronic disease. Flares can also result in weight loss and swollen lymph glands, which are common symptoms during those heightened periods of stress and disease.
As lupus symptoms and intensity varies from patient to patient, treatment should be specified to each individual based on their needs. While there is no cure for lupus, researchers are continually at work to discover an effective treatment. Several medications are administered for lupus patients, according to their symptoms, such as antimalarials, immunosuppressants, corticosteroids, and even over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen and NSAIDs to relieve swelling and pain.
Mild cases can be controlled with anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as oral and topical corticosteroids. More extreme symptoms may require higher doses of corticosteroids, in pill or injectable form, as well as immunosuppressants to regulate the immune system’s hyperactivity. Those who have lupus should take care to avoid the sun and strong ultraviolet rays, covering up, and wearing sunscreen. Taking care of yourself, eating a nutritious diet, being active, and not smoking can all contribute to living more comfortably with lupus.
How Medical Coverage Can Help
If you have lupus and health insurance, you’re either on a group plan, government-sponsored plan, or part of a risk pool. As a policyholder with a chronic condition, the need for coverage is evident in order to keep your illness from worsening. Continual treatment and doctor visits are commonplace and incredibly necessary in order to maintain normalcy or handle your flares. Costs for diagnosis and treatment are greatly improved by using in-network doctors, and your access to care is also much better than being uninsured.
In the diagnostic stage, multiple tests have to be run in order to determine whether you have lupus. Especially because as it resembles other illnesses, it may take several blood tests, urine tests, and a lupus anticoagulant test, among others. Later on, you may need to be tested for organ damage as a result of your disease. Lupus is ongoing, and thus must be treated regularly. Forming a relationship with providers in your network and receiving care for a fair cost are vital considerations when living with lupus.
1. Lupus Foundation of America. What is Lupus.
2. Lupus Foundation of America. What Causes Lupus.
3. Lupus Foundation of America. What are the Symptoms of Lupus.
4. Mayo Clinic. Lupus: Symptoms.
5. WebMD. Lupus Treatment Overview.